South Korean film shoot journal
"The South Korean film industry is becoming too predictable, and we want you to breathe new air into it. We're certain that the hardboiled style of Sai Yoichi will become a new genre in South Korean film... The title is 'Double Casting' (it was later renamed "Soo")."
That was the way the letter began, and it captured my imagination. It was like a love note from the South Korean film world. As someone who had been keeping an eye on their successful run in the Asian market and popularity boom in Japan, I was left with no choice but to accept such a strong invitation, and I didn't hesitate.
Twin brothers torn apart after a youthful theft are finally reunited several years later, but in that instant the younger brother is gunned down before his older brother's eyes. The younger brother had escaped from a crime syndicate to become a police officer, and the older brother worked as an assassin to earn money to track down his sibling... It was overwhelmingly nihilistic. Hmm, kind of Hong Kong noir-ish, but as Sai-style pop action set in modern day Seoul it could be interesting, so it made sense to me.
When I was in Seoul on some other business, I met with the producers. A trendy gent sporting frameless specs and a Yves saint Laurent dress shirt, and a serious-looking intellectual type in a denim jacket and a polo shirt. Both were professional elites: Mr. Dress Shirt had worked for KBS (the South Korean equivalent of NHK), and Mr. Polo Shirt had handled marketing for "My Sassy Girl". They were in their mid-30s and the epitome of the so-called "386 generation": born in the sixties, participants in the democracy movement of the eighties, and now in the prime of their careers in their thirties. At this point I began to worry a little. These two spoke logically, and they came across as decent types. Still, there was an air to them that suggested they didn't know what making a film entailed.
The pay was almost twice what I'd get in Japan, and the completion bonus was a 10% cut of the box office revenue. I conveniently interpreted this business-like rationality as the source of South Korean films' prosperity, and my anxiety was assuaged.
However, the script that arrived turned what should have been a stylish hardboiled story into a sandwich of an almost abnormal brotherly love story and a revenge saga, brimming with South Korean-style sentimentality.
I immediately complained to the producers in Seoul that such stereotypes were unacceptable. The response was amusing. They said they had already brought in another writer on the sly. On top of that, another writer ("B") had joined in before I knew it, and I was told that they were collaborating on the screenplay. So, did that mean the secret writer was "C"? Things were becoming confusing.
Complaining wouldn't have gotten me anywhere. I met writers A and B who had done the first draft in Seoul. Both seemed like affable adults. They nodded profusely in agreement with my objective as the director. They even apologised for misinterpreting my intentions. There was nothing else I could do, so I began casting while waiting for their revisions at the hotel. I heard that South Korean stars were all aware of the project and wanted to act in it, and I yelped in delight.
However, I realised later that this was only wishful thinking on the part of the producers and investors (major film industry players). The only tangible aspect of it was the schedule that revolved around dining out with the presidents of the stars' talent agencies. Well, I'd been prepared for a certain amount of wining, dining and currying favour, but I grew tired of it. To cut a long story short, it was just binge drinking for the showbiz mafia and their sales gimmick from Japan.
Second and third drafts of the script were completed, but neither had fixed the problems. Finally, secret weapon writer C presented their version. However, it was a total plagiarism of Tarantino's "Kill Bill". I couldn't take any more. I announced I was dropping out. The producers fell into a panic, but my resolve was firm.
Then, as if the logical thinkers I'd known until then had disappeared somewhere, they came to me pleading with tears in their eyes to take pity on them. The investors had put their money in based on my participation, and in the case that the director or lead actor pulled out, all funds would have to be returned to them in full, they said. It was like a prostitute asking for money in advance. I was stuck. I pictured the faces of the crew and Ji Jin-hee ("Jewel in the Palace"), who had agreed to take the lead role despite being aware of the turmoil.
Now it had come to this, I couldn't pull out. As the sole alien I had ambitions to 'confront the South Korean film world head on', but I cast them aside.
I rewrote the screenplay myself. No, I virtually wrote it from scratch. In the end, I spend a year and three months based in Seoul. On the day the shoot wrapped, I thought I'd experience some special kind of emotion, but I was surprised at how little I felt.
As I'd expected, "Soo" was a commercial flop when it opened in March. The accepted logic is that the South Korean film bubble has burst, but now I consider it an honour for this little film of mine to be described as one of its flashy failures.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Following on from last week's Sai Yoichi interview, this time I've translated an earlier one from the June 2007 issue of venerable monthly magazine Bungei Shunju (thanks Aceface). Again, Sai is able to be so candid about the shortcomings of his "Soo" colleagues because of his status (he also chairs the Director's Guild of Japan's board of directors) and the fact that his livelihood isn't dependent on the South Korean film industry, but as outspoken as he is I doubt he could be so scathingly specific if he was writing about "Quill" or "Kamui Gaiden".
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